When the Vince Lombardi Trophy is presented for the 48th time in Houston on Feb. 5, the recipients will likely remember it as the crowning moment of their season and forever cherish the snapshots where they’re caught cradling it.
That seems to have been the case for the Green Bay Packers who won Super Bowls XXXI and XLV, as well as those who witnessed Lombardi being handed the “World Professional Football Championship” trophy in a much less formal setting after the Packers captured what are now officially recognized as Super Bowls I and II.
However, times were vastly different when the Packers won their first nine NFL championships in the pre-Super Bowl era and won the two NFL titles prior to advancing to the first two Super Bowls.
First, let me clarify. In 1966 and ’67, before the AFL-NFL merger was finalized, the Packers were widely credited with being two-time and then three-time NFL champions following their two wins over Dallas, not after their Super Bowl victories over Kansas City and Oakland.
Now, let’s rewind the clock to the Curly Lambeau era.
After winning NFL titles in 1936 and ’39, the Packers were given a traveling trophy to retain for a year and replicas that were theirs to keep. When they won their sixth and final NFL title under Lambeau in 1944, their name was inscribed on the same traveling trophy at some point and it might have resided in Green Bay for a time, but there’s no proof of that and there almost certainly was no replica to go with it.
The Packers won their first three championships under Lambeau in 1929, ’30 and ’31, based on the final standings, but have nothing to show for it.
Prior to 1929, the league apparently gave out only one trophy and that was following its first season when it was known by its original name, the American Professional Football Association.
Minutes from the APFA’s Sept. 17, 1920, meeting noted the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company had donated a silver loving cup to give to the eventual championship team. Minutes from the APFA’s April 30, 1921, meeting noted the trophy was awarded to the league’s first champions, the Akron Pros.
But that was the last mention of and presumably the last time the Brunswick-Balke-Collender cup was presented.
Minutes from the NFL’s annual meetings after the Packers won their first three titles stated club officials were given money to buy suitable trophies, one for the team to keep and others to be given to the players.
But the Packers have no trophies to show for their three straight titles and there’s no evidence the money they were given was ever spent on trophies.
Now, let’s jump ahead to the Lombardi years.
In 1961, four months after the Packers won their first NFL title under Lombardi, he was awarded a championship trophy at a “Lombardi Testimonial Banquet” in Green Bay, but it was hardly the highlight of his evening.
Lombardi was much more impressed with the gold-headed putter he was given the same night.
The trophy also seems to have been the last piece of hardware he was awarded by the league until he won the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game, or Super Bowl I, on Jan. 15, 1967.
When the Packers won NFL titles under Lombardi in 1962, ’65, ’66 and ’67, there’s no evidence they ever received a trophy – either a traveling trophy or their own to keep. If they did, the Green Bay Press-Gazette never mentioned it, which would have been completely out of character for a paper that had nurtured the Packers since birth and rarely neglected reporting on the most trivial details about them.
That wasn’t what the NFL had in mind on July 1, 1934, a little more than six months after it held its first championship game, when owners voted to award an Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy to future champions. Thorp, a respected referee and friend of several influential NFL owners, had died eight days earlier.
According to league minutes from that meeting, the trophy was “to be transferred from year to year to the team winning the championship;” the trophy was to “be so constructed that the name of the winner each succeeding year may be properly inscribed upon it;” and also that “each team winning the championship be presented with a small replica of the permanent trophy which shall become the property of the Championship(sic) club.”
While Joe Carr remained league president, the NFL followed through on its motion and awarded the Thorp Trophy annually.
Here, for example, is how the subject was addressed in the minutes of a February 1937 league meeting.
“Motion by Mr. (George Preston) Marshall, seconded by Potsy Clark, that the League Championship for the season of 1936, as well as the World Championship and the Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy, be awarded to the Green Bay Club, and the Treasurer be instructed to pay to the Green Bay Club the amount provided in the League rules to procure trophies for its players. Carried unanimously.”
The Packers’ 1936 replica is on display on the second floor of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. Curiously, although not surprisingly considering Ed Thorp was anything but a household name, his name on the trophy was misspelled.
It was spelled “Thorpe,” as in Jim Thorpe, pro football’s first legend and also first president of the APFA in 1920.
For the record, Carr served as president of the league from 1921 to 1939 and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a charter member in 1963. Based on Chris Willis’ well-researched biography, “The Man Who Built The National Football League,” Carr served with tireless devotion and paid meticulous attention to detail.
Elmer Layden, his successor, was fired after five turbulent years.
Sarah Quick of our public relations department surveyed the 10 other NFL teams that won at least one championship from 1934 to 1969, the last season before the NFL-AFL merger was completed, and found there are six original Thorp replicas in existence.
Five were awarded while Carr was president and the sixth not long after his death. The New York Giants can account for two (1934, ’38); the Packers have two (’36, ’39); and Detroit (’35) and Washington (’37), one each.
The Packers also have the Thorp traveling trophy presented from 1934 through at least 1951. There was no room left on the trophy for more names so the 1951 Los Angeles Rams were the last championship team to be inscribed on it.
Actually, all three Thorp trophies are the property of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame Inc., a non-profit organized in the 1970s and separate from the Packers. The hall has no record of where the trophies came from, but it obviously gained title to them years after the fact.
Thus, there are two overriding mysteries here.
One, how did the Packers wind up with the original traveling trophy when the Rams were the last champions listed? Two, was the Thorp ever presented after 1951?
Folklore says the Minnesota Vikings hold the answer.
The Vikings allegedly lost the trophy after winning the 1969 NFL Championship Game and have been haunted ever since by the ghost of the “Ed Thorp Curse.” Their punishment: four Super Bowl losses and no Lombardi Trophy.
But that seems to be the least plausible explanation here.
If that was the case, no record could be found of anyone from the last 19, pre-1970 NFL champions coming forward and saying they remembered seeing a Thorp trophy or being presented one.
What’s more, wide-ranging searches of newspapers.com and newspaperarchive.com produced no mention of any Thorp trophy presentations from 1940 through 1969.
Additionally, a scan of NFL minutes at the Ralph Wilson Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, failed to uncover mention of the trophy after 1939.
By all appearances, if the Thorp Trophy didn’t die with Carr on May 20, 1939, its importance in the eyes of the league did.
If the trophy was ever awarded between 1940 and 1969, it never shows up on a search of the Chicago Tribune, hometown newspaper of a team that won five NFL titles during that period; or either The Philadelphia Inquirer or Philadelphia Daily News, hometown newspapers of Bert Bell, NFL commissioner from 1946 to 1959.
Nor for that matter were there any matches in the Inquirer or Daily News after the Eagles won NFL titles in 1948, ’49 and ’60. Or in the Minneapolis Star Tribune over the 12 months after the Vikings won the 1969 title.
The only mention of the NFL presenting a championship trophy over that 30-year period was found in the Press-Gazette’s coverage of the “Lombardi Testimonial Banquet.”
On May 1, 1962, the Press-Gazette ran a picture of then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle handing Lombardi what the paper twice referred to as the “Jim Thorpe Trophy” in its story about a banquet held the previous night at Green Bay’s Elks Club.
Just below the staged picture of Lombardi and Rozelle holding a trophy is another of Lombardi grinning from ear-to-ear with his mouth agape as he waved and admired the putter he had just been given.
“I don’t remember the trophy,” says Russ Kriwanek, who took the two photos for the Press-Gazette. “I remember the golden putter. (Lombardi) was laughing and having a good time swinging it around. I don’t remember the trophy (presentation) at all.”
Nor does anyone in the Packers organization know where that trophy might be. The only certainty is that the trophy was not the Thorp traveling trophy. The trophy in the P-G photo was clearly shaped differently than the one in the Packers Hall of Fame today.
What’s more, the Press-Gazette never again mentioned that the Packers were playing for or had a won a Thorp, despite them winning four more NFL titles under Lombardi.
Among other newspapers, there was only one reference made to the Thorp between 1942 and 1969 and it was in a story distributed by the Newspaper Enterprise Association news service in January 1958.
The story said the Lions claimed to be “unofficial custodians” of the trophy they were awarded in 1952 for defeating the Cleveland Browns and had never passed it on. “You save more darn express charges that way,” Detroit’s general manager Nick Kerbawy said.
To be sure, there’s absolutely no evidence Thorp replicas were presented to anyone after Carr’s death. If there were, the Vikings weren’t the only team to lose a trophy. Up to 30 others would have been lost, as well, including six by the Packers and five by the Bears.
Longtime NFL executive Ernie Accorsi told me he scoured an attic at the Baltimore Colts’ old offices looking for artifacts when he went to work for them in 1970 and found no trophies for their 1958 and ’59 championships. He also said in Cleveland, where he was general manager from 1985-92, the Browns didn’t have any championship trophies, either, despite winning NFL titles in 1950, ’54, ’55 and ’64.
There are eight new replicas of the Thorp in the first-floor Trophy Room of the Packers Hall of Fame, but they were ordered for the new hall’s 2015 dedication.
Was there ever a second traveling trophy passed among NFL champions? Or was the original Thorp passed among league champions at least on occasion after 1951 even if there wasn’t room to add the names of the teams?
Joel Bussert, the NFL’s resident historian, said in an email he thought it was possible. Certainly, the story about Rozelle presenting Lombardi with a championship trophy in 1961, as well as the story about the Lions hanging on to a trophy for at least six years in the 1950s suggests it can’t be ruled out.
But it’s also obvious if an Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy was ever handed off from champion to champion after 1951, it was done so in virtual secrecy and the trophy was hardly coveted by those who possessed it. And even earlier, starting soon after Carr’s death in 1939, the NFL must have presented the Thorp without ceremony, if at all, and the public must have been ignorant of its existence.
Photos courtesy of Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, Inc. archives.